October 28, 2009

Frankenstein ... and 'Friend'

The man who made the monster was gay. This is known to any student of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), or anybody who's watched Ian McKellen's superlative take on Whale as a character in Gods and Monsters. But it was The Curse of Frankenstein, the movie that established Hammer Films as the preeminent horror studio of the '60s, that first employed forbidden sexuality as the life-giving lightning for Mary Shelley's creation.
Terence Fisher's movie erupted in 1957, in glorious "Eastmancolour" that put a new sheen on the story's blood and viscera. The frightfully mature young Victor Frankenstein (Melvyn Hayes), recruits scholar Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) to be his in-home tutor, and the two engage in a years-long, passionate pursuit of knowledge ... during which time, Victor ages into Peter Cushing. Krempe is delighted when they're able to reanimate a dead puppy, but for the promethean Victor, creating human life — reproduction — is the goal. Krempe, the victim of an intellectual seduction, plays along.
The fruit of their union is the deformed and violent Creature (Christopher Lee), an unnatural offspring to be caged, shunned, and if Krempe has his way, exterminated. Frankenstein will hear none of it. He constantly lures Krempe back into his experiments, reminding him all the while of his complicity in the original misbegetting. He ignores his betrothed, Elizabeth (Hazel Court), in favor of his Creature's care and feeding — even on their wedding night.

Frankenstein does have one, perfunctory heterosexual affair, with housemaid Justine (Valerie Gaunt). But he treats her with worse than contempt, and ultimately feeds her to his homunculus. In killing Justine, pregnant with Victor's baby, the shambling child-beast also cuts off his creator's natural line of descent. Whelped by two men behind locked doors, the Creature by his very being threatens the social order of his sires.
Throughout, Krempe struggles to disentangle from Victor, hoping his indiscretion can be put behind him. He attaches himself to Elizabeth, and bars Victor from disclosing the Creature's existence to her. "Her mind would be incapable of receiving such a shock," he claims. Perversion must remain locked in the attic. The psychosexuality of Curse is a repressive and frightened kind, a mesh of the Victorianism of its setting and the post-Freudianism of the '50s. It hates itself for wanting what it wants, and fears the results of getting it. Krempe is led astray by an alluring younger man — he's a victim, not a deviant, no, never that. Indulgence of the "curse" gives way to monstrosity, and the abomination that arises will take away all that we love.
We think of this movie and remember only Cushing and Lee, driven father and monstrous son, but their relationship is far from the story's center. Indeed, the final fracture is not the requisite "destruction" of the Creature, but Krempe's fatal break with Frankenstein, when he sashays off with his friend's long-suffering wife. She, by the by, is swaddled for this scene in a furry, symbolically rich garment best described as "labial."
Horror, as Dorian Wright points out in his excellent essay on Fright Night, has always offered a comfortable home for gay themes — buried, save in rare instances, in layers of code and misdirection. The further back in time, of course, the heavier the layers. I don't know how much credit to place at the doorstep of Fisher, Hammer's go-to director for much of the '60s, or that of writer Jimmy Sangster. Both men would help to greatly sexualize the classic movie monsters in their Hammer reinventions. It's tempting to call The Curse of Frankenstein revolutionary, but only insofar as it allowed its self-despising subtext to swim so close to the surface in 1957. This was not art raging against the closet — this was the closet, packed full to bursting with the monsters we'd made.


Justin B-H said...

Fantastic article, Jefferson. Would be interesting to compare how the treatment of gay themes in films mirrored the horror film's own arc somewhat towards acceptability over the next decade or so. Here in Australia the censors refused to pass Hammer's Brides of Dracula in 1960 due to the "horror theme" even with numerous cuts by the distributor, but the uncut version was rated PG in 1972!!!

Bill C said...

@Jefferson: The "labial" thing? Brilliant. Can't believe I didn't pick up on that when I saw the flick.

@Everybody else: Turns out Lulu, our publisher, is holding a sales contest for the month of October. That gives us a day and a half to beef up sales, so if you were procrastinating on picking up the Superannual, no time like the present - http://tiny.cc/8AG9s

Bill C said...

P.S.: If we win, we'll hold a cool contest of our own here at the Blog. (That 10% off "FALLREAD" coupon still works, btw.)

Alex Jackson said...

Been working all month on the 3-disc collector's edition of The Wizard of Oz. Just wanted to report that the 1925 silent movie version is surprisingly great.